In one of her typically brilliant pieces of writing, the great Victoria Wood introduced us to Nicola (played by Julie Walters), the health farm manager. When talking about her philosophy of fitness and healthy living she searched for an inspirational phrase and uttered the immortal line: “I only speak a little Latin, just enough to buy a paper”.
Now, we didn’t do much Latin at my comprehensive school, aside from the occasionally verse of Ave Maria in hymn practice, but I’ve had a well known Latin phrase running around my head all week: ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’, translated mostly as ‘who will guard the guards themselves?’ or ‘who watchers the watchers?’.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of leaders in organisations; in companies; in public life; in government; in the world – and the critical role they have, and sometimes fail to accomplish, in looking after or supporting the mental health and wellbeing of their people. I’ve not been doing this to point the finger of blame at them – although this is easy to do and at times feels justified. But I’ve been thinking about the pressure they are under, the responsibility they bear and the incredibly lonely place it is when in a leadership role: how all roads lead to you; how you are expected to have all the answers; how you are expected to set an example; be the guard and watcher of others and also of the culture of your organisation and what that can do to support or damage mental health and wellbeing. How the bucks always stops with you.
I’ve worked in and with dozens of organisations in my career and held positions of leadership, having a duty of care over dozens of people. I have worked with many CEOs, directors, chairs, board members and other managers and leaders. I have personal experience – and seen first hand – the huge pressures that push down on leadership figures and how isolating being a leader can often be. I have seen far too many leaders struggling with their mental health but feeling unable – for lots of reasons – to put their hand up and say ‘I am struggling’.
Imagine for a minute the stigma – as a fellow scouser once said, it isn’t hard to do – that millions of people feel every day in the workplace which often stops them for telling colleagues or their boss that things are tough for them and that they need help. Then imagine the stifling stigma that the boss feels if they are themselves are the ones struggling. How much pressure is on them to push on, be the invincible, indestructible figure who leads the organisation through the daily storms of business, political, reputational and financial pressures towards the golden sky. Who is there to ensure they are not walking alone? Who is holding their hand? To whom can they turn and confide? How can they truly trust?
I am not talking here about coaches, mentors or colleagues, I am talking about specialist mental health and wellbeing support that recognise that our leaders are not machines or robots but human being who feel the same stresses, pressures, anxieties, insecurities and pains that the rest of us feel.
Someone the leaders can talk about the whole of their life and the impact work is having on it – not just business plans, strategies, motivating colleagues and posting end of year accounts. But the whole person. The person who as well as being a leader is trying to be a good mum, dad, partner, wife, husband, brother, sister, son, daughter and friend. Can we honestly say that organisations are doing enough to support these individuals as they navigate the huge demands placed on them? Or are we saying that this just comes with the territory and the film star wages? Are we really saying that? Are we really saying that a big pay packet insulates individuals from needing and deserving specialist mental health help and they should just suck it up? Please tell me we are not saying that because we may at times question or resent the money they earn or the decisions they make.
Think about recent high profile figures who have voiced their own mental health vulnerabilities, with great bravery and in way that has helped millions. Next time a CEO, political leader, premier league football manager, university vice-chancellor, senior civil servant, or any other leader we encounter through the media or social media, acts in a way we find annoying or strange, ask yourself what kind of pressure are they under and think about whether they are able to put their hand up – without being judged or losing their job – and say “I need help”. Think about the support that is open to them. Think about how many people in their lives truly are there to help them, looking for nothing in return or without judging them. Think about how lonely the walk is that they tread.
If we don’t do more to watch over those who watch over us we will have no-one left. No-one watching us. No-one guarding us. No-one well enough to help us to stay well. It will then be us who are lonely.